It was just past8 p.m. on Jan. 30 in Las Vegas, a chill was in the air on the Strip, and thethrill of possibility was pulsating through the sports book at the BellagioHotel and Casino. Leaning back in plush recliners, bettors followed the actionin several basketball games shown on supersized TV screens that hang from thedark-colored walls. Amid outbursts of ecstasy and agony that reflected thefortunes of those wagering, the man known as the shrewdest risk taker in NASCARstrolled into the smoky room.
Dressed in a tanjacket, a collared shirt and blue jeans, the mastermind behind the 2006 NextelCup championship took a seat in a leather chair and grabbed a piece of paperthat listed the odds for each driver to win the 2007 points title. "We'rethe favorite [at 7 to 2]--I like that," said Chad Knaus, the crew chief forJimmie Johnson and the number 48 Lowe's Chevrolet. "But any of the top 15teams could win it all. The competition level is the best it's everbeen."
Indeed, race fanscan bet on this: 2007 will be the most wide-open race for the Cup in NASCARhistory. While only a handful of drivers had a realistic shot at thechampionship 10 years ago because of the disparity in resources among raceteams, this season roughly a third of the 43-car field has a chance. There arestill superpowers--Hendrick Motorsports (which counts four teams among thechallengers, including Knaus-Johnson), Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush Racing andEvernham Motorsports--but they don't have that much of an edge over driversfrom Richard Childress Racing, Dale Earnhardt, Inc. and Penske RacingSouth.
Yet theoddsmakers were correct in making the Knaus-Johnson team the one everyone elsein the Cup garage will be chasing, because over the last five seasons the pairhas won more races (23) and had more top 10 finishes (110) than any other crewchief--driver combo.
The 35-year-oldKnaus continued to study the Bellagio's odds, examining the sheet as if it wereas complex as the thick NASCAR rule book that he keeps in his office on theoutskirts of Charlotte. Finally, he looked up. "I do know this," hesaid. "We're not satisfied. We want another championship."
Soon afterJohnson won the Daytona 500 last February, signs started to appear in thestands at such tracks as Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, Martinsville (Va.)Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, all with the same theme--ChadKnaus: cheater--referring to what occurred seven days before the 500. AfterJohnson had roared around the 2.5-mile superspeedway for his two qualifyinglaps and placed fifth for the next qualifier, NASCAR inspectors discovered thatthe car's rear window had been slightly raised sometime between theprequalifying inspection and the qualifying runs. NASCAR ruled that this gaveJohnson an aerodynamic advantage and was a blatant rules violation. Johnson'stimes were thrown out, and he was forced to start the next qualifier at theback of the pack; Knaus was ejected from the track, fined $25,000 and suspendedfor one month; he accepted the penalty without appeal.
Driver RyanNewman, who would finish third in the 500, said after the race, "Three outof Jimmie's last four wins have had connections with the cars' being illegal...It's not necessarily good for the sport."
The incidentmarked the seventh time in five years that Knaus had been cited by NASCAR for arules violation. "Every word in the rule book has a space between it, andthat's where you look for an advantage," Knaus says, revealing the risktaker in him. "The perception of me being a cheater is not true at all. Ijust try to find a loophole and explore that."
NASCARnonetheless saw things differently. Knaus flew home to Mooresville, N.C., forwhat would turn out to be the most important month of his racing career.
When Johnson wenton to take the checkered flag at Daytona with team engineer Darian Grubbsitting atop the pit box in Knaus's place, Knaus was watching from hisliving-room couch, eating popcorn. At that moment he didn't know that hissuspension was already helping his team win the Cup.
"When Chadtook that four-week vacation, it allowed the rest of us to take on biggerroles," says Ron Malec, car chief of the Lowe's Chevy. "The suspensionalso matured Chad. We stopped pushing the envelope so much, and Chad lightenedup a little."
Knaus's intensityat the track bordered on the pathological. Before his suspension friends knewnever to talk to him as he flitted around the garage on race mornings clutchinga black, three-ring notebook that was bulging with data on Johnson's car."Chad couldn't stop looking at his notes," says Robbie Loomis, theformer crew chief for Jeff Gordon, who is now executive vice president of raceoperations at Petty Enterprises. "That was what made them so good, but itwas also his downfall. His passion was going to drive him out of thissport."
After the '05season, in fact, Knaus began to realize he needed to change his approach toracing. "I would be spent by the end of the year," he says, "andthat had a lot to do with us not performing to our potential in the final 10races of 2004 and '05--and not winning the championship those seasons. Evenbefore the suspension, the decision was made that it was time for me todelegate more responsibility."
And when hereturned from his suspension, Knaus was a changed man. He appeared more relaxedin the garage, quicker to laugh and more willing to let his crew members have avoice in major decisions. Johnson says his crew chief changed in "about 15different ways," and Knaus even started taking Thursday mornings off tosleep in. It was no coincidence that with a chilled-out Chad atop the pit box,the number 48 team stayed strong late in the season for the first time in fouryears. In fact, Knaus and Johnson went on a historic run, becoming the firstduo to sweep NASCAR's four major prizes in one season: the Daytona 500, theAll-Star race, the Brickyard 400 and the Nextel Cup championship.
"Some peoplegive Chad a bad label, but I give him credit because he's at the top rightnow," says Tony Eury Jr., crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr. "Week inand week out he's got that 48 in front. Most teams go up and down, but not Chadand Jimmie. They've come a long way together."
If there was eversomeone born to be a NASCAR crew chief, it was Chad Knaus, who grew up in ablue-collar neighborhood in Rockford, Ill., and whose father, John, was anauto-body technician and late-model series (LMS) driver. Starting at age five,little Chad would lie on a creeper and roll under the race car as his dadworked on it. "Chad would ask what I was doing, and I would explain it tohim," says John. "Looks like it registered."
In 1985, when hewas 14, Chad served as his dad's crew chief on Saturday nights at RockfordSpeedway, doing everything from working on the engine to placing the sponsordecals on the car. Though Chad would be near tears if his dad got into awreck--Chad treated the team's Chevys as if they were family pets--he quicklyproved he could coax speed out of mediocre equipment. A year later he helpedJohn win an LMS championship at Rockford.
After graduatingfrom Rockford's Jefferson High in 1989, Knaus put his TV and a suitcase full ofclothes in the back of his uncle's station wagon and moved to Charlotte inhopes of catching on with a NASCAR pit crew. Over the next 10 years he sweptfloors at Hendrick Motorsports, worked as a mechanic and fabricator for ownerStanley Smith, oversaw the body development for Gordon's number 24 car, changedtires on Gordon's championship teams in 1995 and '97 and served as crew chieffor Stacy Compton in 2001. Knaus was on his way.
Then in the fallof '01, as he was sitting on the pit wall at Homestead-Miami Speedway chattingwith a friend, a young driver approached. Knaus's friend knew the driver,Jimmie Johnson, introduced him to Knaus and said, "Jimmie, this is the guyyou need as your crew chief."
A month laterowner Rick Hendrick hired Knaus as crew chief for Johnson, who was preparingfor his rookie season on the Cup circuit. They hit it off immediately,communicating at a level that is rare in racing. For example, whenever Johnsonlaunches into a five-minute explanation of what he was feeling in the car as itentered a turn--including information such as throttle position, brake pressureand how the steering handled--Knaus will visualize in slow motion what's goingon inside the car as it rolls through the turn. Then, after consulting with hisengineers, Knaus will make the necessary adjustments.
"Chad's notout on the track, but when I describe my sensations, he can see them," saysJohnson. "His knowledge of race cars is second to none."
"Chad andJimmie are going be a threat to win the next four or five championships,"says Loomis. "They might be on the verge of something special."
At the HendrickMotorsports facility in Charlotte last month, Knaus was showing a visitoraround the vast complex that houses the race teams of Johnson and Gordon. Afterpassing by several of the Chevys that Johnson will race this season, Knausexcitedly pointed toward the body shop, at a car that was sitting in a circleof bright light. It was only half painted, but it would eventually be rolledinto a hauler and taken to Daytona for Johnson's bid to defend his 500title.
"This is anew car, and the detail on it is by far the best I've ever taken to aracetrack," Knaus said with a fatherly smile. "I can't wait for thatrace to start."
Can Knaus andJohnson win their second straight Great American Race? They really like theirodds.
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